Last year, Ron Gordon, the executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, phoned Rep. Lowry Snow and asked him a question: Would you be willing to sponsor a package of legislation that will bring dramatic changes to Utah’s juvenile justice system?
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then, the sound of a deep breath.
“He said, ‘That’s a really heavy lift, Ron. You know there’s a lot involved in this,’ ” Gordon recalled Thursday.
Yes, he knew it would be a lot of work, Gordon told the Republican lawmaker from Santa Clara. Ultimately, Snow told the executive director that he would bring the proposed legislation and be committed to the cause.
That led to a lengthy bill in the 2017 session, co-sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. There was some pushback from various groups — Snow spent weekends traveling to different parts of Utah answering questions about the legislation, Gordon said — and changes to the original text.
But the lawmakers were successful in passing HB239, which emphasizes early intervention in the juvenile justice system, with the goal of keeping low-risk youth offenders in their homes instead of detention centers.
On Thursday, the two lawmakers were each awarded Youth Advocate of the Year for their work by the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice.
Their effort to bring reform was courageous, said Steven Teske, who is the chief presiding judge in Clayton County, GA, and who was the keynote speaker at Thursday’s award event at the Utah State Capitol.
“In this business, there are a lot of folks who will turn their backs because it makes them look soft on crime,” Teske said.
The Georgia judge said he has read Lowry’s bill and believes it will improve Utah’s juvenile justice system. How does he know?
Teske said officials in his state made similar, if not identical, changes four years ago. The state has saved millions that would have been spent on incarcerating low-level youth offenders, Teske said.
“We don’t see chaos in the street,” he said. “We don’t see chaos in the schools. We see the lives of children improving.”
The bill passed in Utah limits the amount of time youth can spend in detention centers — with the exception of youth accused of particular violent felonies — and it puts a cap on fees and service hours that a juvenile judge can order. It also encourages schools to take a tier-based response to juvenile delinquents rather than directly referring them to the court system.
The legislation was a result of six months of study by the Utah Juvenile Working Group, which is composed of juvenile judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor.
The working group’s study found that Utah youths who were deemed “low-risk” often were progressing deeper into the juvenile justice system. And if juveniles are placed out of the home — whether that be in a detention center, a group home or other placement — they fared worse and reoffended more often than those who were allowed to stay in their homes, according to the working group’s report.
Snow said earlier this year that the primary goal of the legislation was to change how juveniles are dealt with in the justice system, while not jeopardizing public safety. The changes also will cut costs, he said, and are rooted in evidence-based practices.
He said Thursday that while the old system wasn’t “badly broken,” there were changes that could be made to make it better.
The two lawmakers said Thursday that while there may be some minor tweaks proposed to these laws during the next legislative session, they won’t be seeking any further sweeping changes to the juvenile system next year.